By quirk of history, the central part of Connecticut has two major small cities instead of one large urban center. As the major 17th-century colonies of Hartford and New Haven evolved, they sometimes competed.
In 1718, New Haven nailed down the Collegiate School, which had been in three other communities and would soon be named after benefactor Elihu Yale. Hartford and New Haven were co-state capitals until Hartford became the sole capital in 1875.
Both steps continue to define the cities. New Haven, blessed with Yale and a location on the Northeast Corridor/I-95, has become Connecticut's central academic, transportation and cultural hub. Hartford, though hardly bereft of top cultural and academic institutions, is known both for politics and as a prominent insurance and aerospace center.
By themselves, each city has major strengths and weaknesses. But what if they were one city? That is the promise of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line. If there is efficient rail service that ties the two cites together within 30 minutes, Connecticut will have its first complete city in its modern history.
New Haven and Hartford are far apart on the spectrum of urban culture. After years of hand-in-hand development between Yale and city hall, New Haven has become a 24/7 urban community. The city and university have formed a complete system of amenities and attractions for people to live, work and play in a rich urban environment, all within walking distance of commuter rail to points east and west.
Despite these major pluses, the city has only a nominal business culture that cannot keep graduates of Yale and other local universities in New Haven. So, despite the city's rich culture and other resources, students and young professionals are forced to leave New Haven for better job opportunities elsewhere.
In contrast, Hartford has become a prestigious job center that draws bright young graduates from all over the country to companies such as United Technologies, Aetna, Travelers and The Hartford.
But Hartford's core has become fragmented and disconnected, as much an office park as a downtown. Despite the city's best efforts — and some progress — to make downtown an attractive residential setting, it lacks the basic 24/7 resources to generate a strong urban culture. The idea of living in an office park encourages many students and young professionals to look at urban centers outside Connecticut.
So, what Hartford struggles with are New Haven's greatest attractions, and vice versa. That's the perfect reason to partner up. Their competition is not each other — it is Raleigh, Nashville, Portland and other strong metropolitan areas.
Instead of defaulting to these places as our young people move there, New Haven and Hartford can become the strong, attractive urban center Connecticut needs. The downtowns are about 35 miles apart. If both cities were within 30 minutes of one another by affordable rail service, Hartford could attract young professionals to its financial district with New Haven as an attractive place to live.
The rail line can create a "linear city," a complete urban community of 270,000 in Connecticut, making it by far the largest urban environment between Boston and New York. Plus, it would create a combined Hartford-New Haven metro area of 2 million people, as large as the metro areas of Kansas City, Portland, San Antonio, Las Vegas or Pittsburgh.
Finally, a linear city along the rail corridor that is not dependent on auto use would be the greatest "green" initiative the state could achieve, trumping any solar, wind, hydro or geothermal project that might be on the drawing board.
That's what commuter rail service, scheduled to open in 2015, makes possible.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at